Feature: Prof: Math courses watered down

By MARCELLA S. KREITER   |   Jan. 18, 2003 at 4:15 AM

CHICAGO, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- College math courses for the numerically challenged are the equivalent of English courses based on classic comics, a University of Chicago mathematics professor says.

In a speech prepared for the Joint Mathematics Meetings of the American Mathematics Society and the Mathematical Association of America at the Baltimore Convention Center Saturday, Professor Paul Sally Jr. decries what he sees as a trend toward teaching college students about mathematics rather than teaching them to work the problems.

"There is almost no situation in life where you're not going to need some quantitative literacy in order to achieve certain goals," Sally said.

"This notion that one has to 'interest' students in mathematics in order to make them do it has gone much too far, to the point where real mathematics in many cases has just disappeared entirely from the courses. They're just a discussion of what mathematics does and beautiful pictures and imprecise ideas."

To bolster his position, Sally points to "What is Mathematics?" The textbook was originally published in the 1940s and endorsed by Albert Einstein but now is considered much too difficult for non-mathematicians.

Sally said the problem is that students are just not prepared for college-level math. He recommends mathematicians work with teachers to better prepare high school students.

"You could start at very early levels, third or fourth grade, and build on them in such a way that they become able to deal with serious problems -- even at the graduate research level. You just have to bring them along," Sally said.

The reason students are ill-prepared, Sally contends, is the level of mathematical competence among elementary school teachers.

"The teaching profession has not kept pace with salaries and benefits and so we have lost a large number of extremely qualified people (to industry)," Sally said. "If you're preparing to teach kindergarten through eighth grade, chances are you might have one so-called 'mathematical methods' course. This is woefully inadequate for teaching the kind of mathematics that has to be delivered in today's world."

Sally said with the growing importance of technology in our lives, people have to be able to interpret data.

"Data drives a lot of society these days," he said. "The ordinary citizen has to have some sense about it."

In other countries, Sally said, research scientists and educators work together.

"But that's not done here to any extent. That gap must be closed to improve this situation," he said.

Sally was the first director of the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project and founded the Seminars for Elementary Specialists and Mathematics Education program, and the Young Scholars Program for mathematically talented students.

He has received numerous honors and with Diane Herrmann, senior lecturer in mathematics at the University of Chicago, co-wrote a textbook which will be published later this year. Its working title is "Number, Shape and Symmetry."

"We made no attempt to water it down," Sally said.

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